“And my daughter.” Pride spilled out of the woman. Her smile, her eyes, her entire face lit up as she showed me the photos on her phone. One after the other she scrolled.
“She has three little children. Let me tell you”—she put her hand on her chest—“I never thought the girl was going to give me any grandbabies.” She tapped the phone with her finger.
I slowly sucked in a deep breath, reminding myself that this was just a temporary situation. After the airplane landed, I’d never have to see this woman again.
“Look here.” She shoved the phone in my face. “This is Joey.”
I could practically smell the cookie he was holding in his picture. It was so close.
“He’s a handful. He loves his mom. This is little Chance. He’s a handful, but he loves his mom too.” She scrolled past a few more until she landed on little Chance.
She’d done this photo dump on strangers a time or two. She did it flawlessly.
“This is my little Lizzy.” The woman giggled. “She’s just a doll baby. She’s the cutest. Just the cutest,” she repeated as if I’d not heard her say it the first time. “She’s the cutest.”
She stared at me.
“Oh.” I realized she wanted a response. “Yes. She is.”
She bragged on her three grandchildren, which I was far removed from. I mean, honestly, I had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of this four-hour airplane ride.
I knew I shouldn’t have made eye contact when I first got on the plane. It was the eye contact that opened the flood gates of chatty granny.
The only hope I had was the connecting flight. What were the chances she’d be on that one and be seated next to me?
“Excuse me for a second. I had a little too much Diet Coke,” I told her and unbuckled the safety belt.
“Airplane bathroom are awful. If you were my daughter, I’d told you to go to the bathroom before we got on the airplane.” She wagged a finger at me. “You hold on. It’s no fun squatting on that little toilet when there’s turbulence.” Her eyes grew with fear as though she had first hand experience.
“Thanks.” I stood up and took a big deep breath before I took my first steps of freedom away from my seatmate.
This entire plane ride was nothing like I had in my head when I woke up. Really was anything ever turn out the way we imagined them?
There were things I needed to do to prepare myself for the biggest interview of my life. I would’ve loved to hear about little Lizzy and her brothers on any given day, just not today.
Today was the day I’d been waiting on for—well, I couldn’t even remember how long. That was long if I couldn’t remember.
“Get yourself together, Violet,” I told myself under the fake smile as I stepped over a child playing in the aisle when the child should’ve been in a family member’s lap. I tossed my long blond hair, which was perfectly styled today, over my shoulder.
Carefully I stepped over her.
“I’m sorry,” a woman mouthed. She must’ve been the little girl’s mom, they had the same eyes.
“No problem.” I waved it off and continued down the center of the airplane toward the bathroom.
All eyes were on me. I’d been a reporter in my hometown of Normal, Kentucky for Channel Two news, where I also had my own show called “Good Day in the Park.” I wrote a monthly column for my hometown newspaper, so I was used to the perfect smile.
I’d spent my career giving up any social life so I could get my one big break. This was it. Nothing was going to ruin it.
Just a few short days, you’re gonna see me on TV, being a big-time reporter, I thought to myself when I noticed people glancing up at me.
Like my Aunt Lucinda told me, Violet, honey, you’ve got to fake it until you make it. That was exactly what I had done in Normal, and here I was—on my way to making it big!
The flight attendant was busy getting the little food cart ready to push down the aisle and stepped out of the way of the bathroom door when she noticed me going for the handle.
“Are you having a good flight?” she cordially asked. Her brown hair was parted to the side, pulled back into a low ponytail. The maroon uniform showed off a very appealing figure that showed she took care of herself. Something I could definitely understand.
It was one of the many things I needed to do to stay camera-ready at any moment.
“Yes. I am.” I curled my fingers into the small opening of the handle and pulled the accordion bathroom door open. “Oh my gawd!”
My body shook. My breath heaved in and out at a rapid pace.
I slammed the bathroom door shut.
“What’s wrong?” the flight attendant asked me. She put one hand on me when she noticed my knees were giving out, and with her free hand, she pulled the flight attendant seat down, easing me into it.
“I…” I gasped for air. “I…”
“You’re having a panic attack. It’s okay,” she assured me, reaching behind her to get one of those throw-up bags. She put it in my hands. “Just breathe slowly in and out into the bag.”
“No.” I shook my head, trying to get away from the bag she’d shoved into my face. “Body. Body,” I gasped and pointed to the bathroom. “There’s—” I rolled my eyes up and tried to take a deep breath. “There’s a body.”
I pointed and gave up, resting my head back against the airplane’s wall.
“Someone was in there?” She made an eeck face and smiled. “They probably forgot to lock the door. It happens all the time.”
I reached up, grabbed the front of her uniform jacket, and dragged her down face-to-face with me.
“Dead body. Blood.” It was all I could get out.
One Week Earlier
“One more week in this cold town is going to kill me,” I told Gert Hobson, the owner of the only coffee shop in my small hometown of Normal, Kentucky.
Really, there weren’t many shops and zero big-box stores. Some would say it was what made my hometown a tourist destination: the small shops and the locals, not to mention the Daniel Boone National Forest that curled up around the town like a hug from Mother Nature.
“The weather getting to you?” Gert asked. She flipped the switch on the coffee machine she used to make my special espresso combined with cocoa and ground chocolate and topped with steamed milk that delivered the best sweetness to my palate.
“No, though it has been unseasonably cold this winter.” I leaned on the coffee shop’s counter and drew my shoulders up to my ears when I twisted around and looked behind me at the line of customers in the cute coffee shop. “But I’m so tired of reporting on things like new trails discovered, all the reenactments, or how to be safe during the upcoming hunting season. I want to report on real things.”
“What about ‘Good Day in the Park’? Everyone loves it.” Gert was trying to be nice. She always had that personality.
“You and the three others who watch it.” I never told anyone in Normal how it was my segment and the station manager of Channel Two didn’t give me my own cameraman. He’d told me it was my show and they didn’t budget for any extra staff.
So to make me look better in front of everyone around here and get my own show, I paid for the cameraman out of my own pocket, making it look as though he was from the news station. He wasn’t. I found him in the Help Wanted section for a videographer in the Normal Gazette, another place I did reporting just to make ends meet.
“I think you’re selling yourself short.” Gert frowned and handed me the coffee over the top of the glass display counter, where she kept the most delicious desserts. Some she made, and some were from the Cookie Crumble, the local bakery. “What do you want to eat? On the house.”
“Nothing.” I patted my stomach. “I’ve got to watch the calories for when I make it big.”
I didn’t dare think about the calorie content in the fancy coffee.
“Then your coffee is on the house.” She looked past me to help the next customer in line.
I whipped around and knocked smack-dab into someone, spilling the hot drink down the camel-colored trench coat.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry,” I pleaded with the man and reached back around to get the towel Gert had extended over the counter. “You know what,” I rambled and wiped the front of his coat down, seeing the stains of all of the delish contents not coming off. “I have a friend who owns a laundromat across the street. I can take your coat to her, and she’ll have it all cleaned up in no time.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” He smiled, and the creases around his eyes deepened. His brown hair was cut and blended better than Helen Pyle could do down at the Cute-icles Salon, Normal’s only option to get a haircut. “I have another coat.”
“I insist.” I started to tug at the collar. “I’m not taking no for an answer. My mama taught me good manners, and it’s just good manners for me to get your coat cleaned. What do you like to do? Hike? Kayak? Camp? Rock climb?”
“No. No. No.” He shrugged off his coat. He was a well-to-do man with a blue button-down and the shiniest cufflinks I’d ever seen. “I’m passing through on my way to Tennessee to catch a flight back west.”
“Flight?” I wondered, the journalist side of me. I was pleased as a peach with his coat in my possession.
“Yep. I was in Lexington doing some business, and my flight back to California got cancelled. They don’t have any idea when the plane will leave. It could be a day or next week.” He smiled. This time I noticed his dimples. “I’m a doer, which means I made other arrangements for a flight out of an airport in Tennessee. I was driving through your town and decided to grab me a coffee.”
“Not wear one?” I joked.
“I don’t think it looks good on me. Apparently you don’t either, since you’re so insistent on getting my coat cleaned. Which isn’t necessary, seeing I’ve got to get going. I don’t want to miss that flight.” He tried to take his coat, but I held on to it. “Really. You don’t need to clean it.”
“You might’swell let her do it. Once Violet gets something in that noggin’ of hers, she doesn’t let go.” Just hearing the voice of Dottie Swaggert before I saw her face made my stomach curl. “After all, she’s failed at the other idea of getting out of this town. Can’t you throw the gal a bone?”
“Dottie, go smoke a cigarette.” I swiveled around and shot her a look before I turned back to him. He had a look on his face that said he was very entertained.
“A feisty go-get-it kinda gal.” His lips drew up in a grin, and his head tilted with one big nod. “I like that in a woman. In fact, I came to Lexington to interview a woman who I thought had your gumption but disappointed since I didn’t see that side of her. On television she comes off confident. In person, not so much.”
“Television? Did you say television?” No wonder he was so fancy. He had to be a movie star. There were no shortage of them that came to Normal to get away. In fact, a lot of movie stars loved to escape to the mountains in Appalachia, where they tended to be left alone.
“I’m not big-time.” He held his hands out.
“I’m a reporter, so it got my interest. In fact”—I reached around and brought Dottie back into the conversation—“Dottie can tell you how I’m a big reporter for Channel Two as well as host my own show here in Normal called ‘Good Day in the Park.’ Right, Dottie?” I nudged her maybe a little too hard in the ribs.
“Mmmhmmmm,” she ho-hummed. I had to do a double take when I noticed she’d already slipped a cigarette in the corner of her lips. It bobbled up and down as she spoke. “Yep. She’s been trying to make me watch all them health segments she likes to do, but I think I’m just fine.”
The man’s eyes shifted to me like he was waiting to see if I was going to banter with her.
“As you can see, we have colorful citizens here in Normal, but I’m not planning on being here too much longer. I’ve got so many interviews with bigger markets, so I’m sure my time in Normal is limited.” I lied but hoped he’d see something in me. “I’m Violet Rhinehammer, by the way.”
I stuck my hand out from underneath his coat, which was folded over my forearm.
“Richard Stone.” He stuck out his hand. “Violet. I like that name. Rhinehammer might not be a good stage name, but if you’re willing to give up the name, I’m willing to interview you on one condition.”
“What’s that?” I gulped, trying not to show too much excitement.
“You have to fly to California to interview in one week.” He looked down at the coat. “You can bring the coat with you then.”
“She’d love to.” Dottie reached around me and grabbed the card he’d taken out of his pants pocket. “We’ve been trying to get rid of her for years.”
The more I recalled the morning where I thought my life had changed, the excitement, the phone calls I made to everyone and their brother, letting them know I’d made it to the big time, all started to pound down on my head like a gong.
A big one.
Or maybe the sudden migraine had to do with the dead body sitting just about three feet from me behind the little airplane accordion door.
“How are you doing, darling?” the flight attendant asked me like we’d just gotten back from taking a walk in the park or something so casual.
“How do you think I’m doing?” The bag I had still pressed up to my mouth muted the sarcastic tone of my question back to her.
The phone on the wall beeped, and she picked it up and gave all sorts of mmhhhms and yes, okay, fine to whoever was on the other end of the line before she hung up.
I kept my eyes closed, head down, and slowly tried to breathe into the bag. The heavy footsteps coming toward the back of the airplane made me look up.
“Hi there.” The man had bent down between my legs. He couldn’t’ve been any older than me. “I’m Jim Dixon, the pilot, and I understand there’s been an issue.”
“An issue?” I looked up at the flight attendant. “A dead body is not an issue. It’s a murder, and someone on this airplane did it.”
“Violet, right?” He looked up at the flight attendant. She nodded to confirm. “I do understand we have a deceased passenger confirmed, but we have no way of knowing how our passenger died.”
“Yes. Yes, we do. Stab to the neck.” I hung my tongue out for good measure. “And there’s a killer on this airplane. Oh gawd. What if I’m next?”
The sudden realization of mortality started to set in.
“Where’s my phone? I have to call my mom. I have to tell her I’m okay.” I started to get up, but the heavy hand of Jim Dixon on my shoulder pushed me back down.
“This is what we cannot have on here right now. We are thousands and thousands of feet up in the air.” He talked to me like I was a kindergartener. “And if you or anyone else goes around yelling about what you had seen behind the door, then we will have an airplane full of panicking people. And we don’t want that, do we?”
Slowly he shook his head, and I mimicked him.
“Can I ask you to sit here while I take a look for myself? Not that I don’t believe you, but I’ve got to make the decision on whether or not we make an emergency landing. Do you think you can stay calm?” Jim’s tone was somewhat soothing and a bit comforting.
I nodded to confirm I could stay calm. Just to make sure, I put my head back between my legs and kept the paper bag over my mouth in case I started to hyperventilate again.
He patted my leg and stood up. Remember the sound of long fingernails running down a chalkboard and how the sound made goose bumps curl up your body? The sound of the folded slats of the accordion door sliding together when Jim pushed it open gave me the exact same feeling and chills.
There was a huge pause and silence that made me look up.
“Everything is fine, everything is fine,” the flight attendant assured me, batting her long eyelashes. There wasn’t a smile on her face to go with her words.
My gaze shifted from her to Jim.
“Cherise, there is a dead body in the bathroom.” He said it like he wasn’t expecting it. “We are going to need to land the plane.”
“I told you.” I couldn’t help but confirm to him that I was right. “There’s a killer here,” I said with a hushed whisper out of the side of my mouth.
“And that is why we don’t need to alarm anyone. You leave this up to me. Understood, Violet?” His face was so stern, as if something bad was going to happen if I didn’t listen to him.
“Yes. Fine.” I went back to the bag and couldn’t help but hear that door unfold back to close.
There were some murmured words between Cherise and Jim, but I didn’t bother trying to listen to them. My mind was preoccupied with telling my stomach not to throw up since my heart had pumped all the blood to it because of the panic attack I was having. I knew if I stood up, my brain would be lacking oxygen because the heart was so selfish it took all the oxygen too.
Before too long, my organs and I were left in the back of the airplane with Cherise and the dead guy in the toilet.
Ding, ding. The chimes for the airplane’s announcements were piped through the intercom system, followed up by the static noise of the cockpit before Jim’s familiar voice came across.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this is Pilot Jim Dixon. I’m sorry to interrupt our flight. Unfortunately, we need to make a quick landing into the closest airfield in Holiday Junction.” The rattle of chatter began to fill the inside of the airplane. “Cherise will be coming down the aisle to collect any garbage you may have. Please put up your tray tables and bring your chairs to an upright position. We will be landing shortly and be there for a small amount of time before we take off to our destination of sunny California.”
“Trash? Trash? Trash?” Cherise’s happy tone had a nervous click to it as she asked each passenger row by row. “I’m sorry. Do you think you can turn around and buckle up? We are descending.” Her voice was becoming much harder with each passenger she had to tell to turn around.
People started twisting around, and chatter continued to fill the cabin of the airplane. All of a sudden, when I looked up, eyes were all on me.
“I think she’s sick. That’s why we are landing,” I overheard someone say.
Cherise gave up and came back with an empty garbage sack.
“What about the family? What about his family? Somebody has to be on board.” My mind was racing.
The phone buzzed again.
“Mmhmmm. Hold on.” Cherise put the phone to her chest. “Do you think you could peek in there and see if you can find some sort of identification on him?”
“You want me”—I pointed to myself—“to go in there”—I moved my finger to point to the accordion door—“and rummage through his pockets to see if I can find any ID on the dead man?”
“Dead man?” I heard someone ask. “Did she say dead man?” The person in the row just in front of the bathroom turned just enough around the corner to look at me. “Did you say ‘dead man’? Is there a dead man in there?”
“Everything is fine. Just fine.” Cherise didn’t sound so convincing. She used her finger to gesture for the passenger to turn around. “We will be landing soon. Please turn around.”
“I overheard you telling the woman you were sitting with that you were some fancy reporter.” Cherise had bent down and was whispering into my ear. “What more of a story do you need than this? So get in there and find out the information. Just think about it. You get the big scoop before the police even get it.”
Boy oh boy. Cherise sure did know how to dangle a carrot in front of my nose.